Building an Ethic of Caring in the Classroom: Throw Fear Away

My Post (3)

Welcome to the very first in a series dedicated to foregrounding love in lesson planning and instruction for building more caring classrooms. I realize that someone who just read that first sentence may have been immediately turned off by my use of the word “love.” Love is a big, complicated, and even messy concept that we know even the Greeks wrestled with as they needed at least four different words to try and capture its multiplicitous meaning. The love I am attempting to depict in this series is a love we commit out of inclination; we are urged from within to aid, help, be kind, and express care towards others. My hope is that expression of love is exactly what we want to convey to our students and that we would want a teacher to express to our own children.

While future posts will rotate their themes and focus, each going forward will have some practical, ready-to-implement learning experience you can use. The only exception will be posts that bring former students’ perspectives together for the sake of discussion. Today I am sharing one of the first experiences I developed for students well before I became a researcher, and I was simply seeking to better connect my students to the potentially extraordinary learning experience they could have in my classroom. I never named the experience, but I feel for the sake of making it a useful tool for others, I am calling it “Throw Fear Away.”

Students share details about their lives in a non-threatening way to build community and trust in the classroom.

Materials: Paper, Pencil, Bag/Bucket, Trashcan

“When you know you have a student hurting, what they do (or don’t do) in class takes on new meaning and provides context that impacts how a teacher handles interacting and working with that student”

1.) Either provide students with a sheet of paper or ask them to take one out and to tear it into four pieces.

2.) Each student answers the following question on one scrap of paper:
“What is aspect of who you are that you feel everyone already knows?”

  • Once students have had time to answer the question, have them pass their answer to an elbow partner. Partners read one another’s answers silently.
  • Instruct students to keep their reactions to themselves until you tell them to turn to one another and simply tell their partner whether they knew the information about them or not. If so, how do they know it? If not, was the information surprising? Why or why not?

3.) On the second strip of paper have students answer the following question:
“What’s an aspect of your life you think people misunderstand?”

  • Same as last time, give students a chance to write their answers, but now with a new elbow partner have each student read one another’s answers.
  • Each partner now gets a chance to react to the information and explain if they knew of and believed the information, and the original student explains why they believe it is a misunderstanding.

4.) On the third strip of paper, have students answer the question:
“What do you wish people really knew about you?” and explain they will not have to share the information with a partner. Instead, tell them they will fold their answer and put it in a bag you provide (or bucket or hat).

  • Emphasize honesty and that their answers remain anonymous.

“The point is to center the experience around challenging misconceptions and dispelling fears of learning and/or classroom experiences.”

5.) Once you have collected all the answers, you take the bag to a part of the room where all your students can see you. Explain to the students that you will be pulling the papers out one by one and reading the answers. Remind them you will not use names (which shouldn’t be a problem as they shouldn’t have provided them), and that you expect them to listen intently as you read their peer’s responses.

  • This is typically a powerful moment where students see themselves in one another. Often times, multiple students write very similar answers. Maybe more importantly, a student reveals something very real they are struggling with or something that worries them. This serves to give students insight into one another’s lived experiences and it provides the teacher a look into where there may be pain in his or her students’ lives.
  • When you know you have a student hurting, what they do (or don’t do) in class takes on new meaning and provides context that impacts how a teacher handles interacting and working with that student.

6.) On the last strip of paper, have students answer:
“What is your biggest fear?,” explaining you will be the only one to see their answer this time.

  • With enough time to write, set up a trashcan in the middle of the room and tell them to wad up their fears and throw them away.
  • How a teacher explains the symbolism is up to him or her, but the action is great way to indicate to students that your classroom is space where they will learn about each other, support each other, and have nothing to fear.

“I have found, at least anecdotally, students want to tell their stories”

This experience is easily connected to various types of texts, both written and visual. When I created this experience, I was teaching a language arts class, and I used this to help illustrate what a theme like “walking a mile in someone else’s shoes” is really meant to convey. At the time, I did not readily recognize that I was also creating a foundation for students to feel more comfortable in my classroom and to feel more connected to one another. While I admit using this in a science or math class might be challenging, it’s not impossible. For example, in math the questions can center around students’ experiences with math and numeracy with a focus on misconceptions or fears about math. The point is to center the experience around challenging misconceptions and dispelling fears of learning and/or classroom experiences. Some students may push back on being open during this activity and that is okay. Never force a student to participate, but certainly encourage him or her. A teacher can learn as much from a student who refuses to engage in the activity as those who willingly do. That said, I have never had a student not participate. I have found, at least anecdotally, students want to tell their stories. Another suggestion is to consider participating in this experience with your students, answering the questions and sharing along with them.

I started with this activity as the first post because it breaks down a few potential barriers relatively quickly. The veneer that everyone has their act together is quickly wiped clean, and hopefully a teacher will have laid the groundwork for empathy to grow in his or her classroom now that students have a new understanding of one another. I have found this experience also provides some students to feel seen by both their peers and the teacher (maybe for the first time), which is a whole new experience for many.

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